The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People, Not ‘Serve and Protect’

Sam Mitrani January 6, 2015

We shouldn’t expect the police to be something they’re not. (David Shankbone / Flickr)

In most of the lib­er­al dis­cus­sions of the recent police killings of unarmed black men, there is an under­ly­ing assump­tion that the police are sup­posed to pro­tect and serve the pop­u­la­tion. That is, after all, what they were cre­at­ed to do. 

If only the nor­mal, decent rela­tions between the police and the com­mu­ni­ty could be re-estab­lished, this prob­lem could be resolved. Poor peo­ple in gen­er­al are more like­ly to be the vic­tims of crime than any­one else, this rea­son­ing goes, and in that way, they are in more need than any­one else of police pro­tec­tion. Maybe there are a few bad apples, but if only the police weren’t so racist, or didn’t car­ry out poli­cies like stop-and-frisk, or weren’t so afraid of black peo­ple, or shot few­er unarmed men, they could func­tion as a use­ful ser­vice that we all need.

This lib­er­al way of view­ing the prob­lem rests on a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the ori­gins of the police and what they were cre­at­ed to do.

The police were not cre­at­ed to pro­tect and serve the pop­u­la­tion. They were not cre­at­ed to stop crime, at least not as most peo­ple under­stand it. And they were cer­tain­ly not cre­at­ed to pro­mote jus­tice. They were cre­at­ed to pro­tect the new form of wage-labor cap­i­tal­ism that emerged in the mid- to late-19th cen­tu­ry from the threat posed by that system’s off­spring, the work­ing class.

This is a blunt way of stat­ing a nuanced truth, but some­times nuance just serves to obfuscate.

Before the 19th cen­tu­ry, there were no police forces that we would rec­og­nize as such any­where in the world. In the North­ern Unit­ed States, there was a sys­tem of elect­ed con­sta­bles and sher­iffs, much more respon­si­ble to the pop­u­la­tion in a very direct way than the police are today. In the South, the clos­est thing to a police force was the slave patrols.

Then, as North­ern cities grew and filled with most­ly immi­grant wage work­ers who were phys­i­cal­ly and social­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the rul­ing class, the wealthy elite who ran the var­i­ous munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments hired hun­dreds and then thou­sands of armed men to impose order on the new work­ing class neighborhoods.

Class con­flict roiled late-19th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can cities like Chica­go, which expe­ri­enced major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886, and 1894. In each of these upheavals, the police attacked strik­ers with extreme vio­lence, even if in 1877 and 1894 the U.S. Army played a big­ger role in ulti­mate­ly repress­ing the work­ing class. In the after­math of these move­ments, the police increas­ing­ly pre­sent­ed them­selves as a thin blue line pro­tect­ing civ­i­liza­tion (by which they meant bour­geois civ­i­liza­tion) from the dis­or­der of the work­ing class. This ide­ol­o­gy of order that devel­oped in the late 19th cen­tu­ry echoes down to today — except that today, poor black and Lati­no peo­ple are the main threat, rather than immi­grant workers.

Of course, the rul­ing class did not get every­thing it want­ed, and had to yield on many points to the immi­grant work­ers it sought to con­trol. This is why, for instance, munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments backed away from try­ing to stop Sun­day drink­ing, and why they hired so many immi­grant police offi­cers, espe­cial­ly the Irish. But despite these con­ces­sions, busi­ness­men orga­nized them­selves to make sure the police were increas­ing­ly iso­lat­ed from demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol, and estab­lished their own hier­ar­chies, sys­tems of gov­er­nance, and rules of behavior.

The police increas­ing­ly set them­selves off from the pop­u­la­tion by don­ning uni­forms; estab­lish­ing their own rules for hir­ing, pro­mo­tion and fir­ing; work­ing to build a unique esprit des corps and iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves with order. And despite com­plaints about cor­rup­tion and inef­fi­cien­cy, they gained more and more sup­port from the rul­ing class, to the extent that in Chica­go, for instance, busi­ness­men donat­ed mon­ey to buy the police rifles, artillery, Gatling guns, build­ings, and mon­ey to estab­lish a police pen­sion out of their own pockets.

There was a nev­er a time when the big city police neu­tral­ly enforced the law,” or came any­where close to that ide­al. (For that mat­ter, the law itself has nev­er been neu­tral.) In the North, they most­ly arrest­ed peo­ple for the vague­ly defined crimes” of dis­or­der­ly con­duct and vagrancy through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. This meant that the police could arrest any­one they saw as a threat to order.” In the post-bel­lum South, they enforced white suprema­cy and large­ly arrest­ed black peo­ple on trumped-up charges in order to feed them into con­vict labor systems.

The vio­lence the police car­ried out and their moral sep­a­ra­tion from those they patrolled were not the con­se­quences of the bru­tal­i­ty of indi­vid­ual offi­cers, but were the con­se­quences of care­ful poli­cies designed to mold the police into a force that could use vio­lence to deal with the social prob­lems that accom­pa­nied the devel­op­ment of a wage-labor economy.

For instance, in the short, sharp depres­sion of the mid-1880s, Chica­go was filled with pros­ti­tutes who worked the streets. Many police­men rec­og­nized that these pros­ti­tutes were gen­er­al­ly impov­er­ished women seek­ing a way to sur­vive, and ini­tial­ly tol­er­at­ed their behav­ior. But the police hier­ar­chy insist­ed that the patrol­men do their duty what­ev­er their feel­ings, and arrest these women, impose fines, and dri­ve them off the streets and into broth­els, where they could be ignored by some mem­bers of the elite and con­trolled by others.

Sim­i­lar­ly, in 1885, when Chica­go began to expe­ri­ence a wave of strikes, some police­men sym­pa­thized with strik­ers. But once the police hier­ar­chy and the may­or decid­ed to break the strikes, police­men who refused to com­ply were fired. In these and a thou­sand sim­i­lar ways, the police were mold­ed into a force that would impose order on work­ing class and poor peo­ple, what­ev­er the indi­vid­ual feel­ings of the offi­cers involved.

Though some patrol­men tried to be kind and oth­ers were open­ly bru­tal, police vio­lence in the 1880s was not a case of a few bad apples — and nei­ther is it today.

Much has changed since the cre­ation of the police — most impor­tant­ly the influx of black peo­ple into the North­ern cities, the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry black move­ment, and the cre­ation of the cur­rent sys­tem of mass incar­cer­a­tion in part as a response to that move­ment. But these changes did not lead to a fun­da­men­tal shift in polic­ing. They led to new poli­cies designed to pre­serve fun­da­men­tal con­ti­nu­ities. The police were cre­at­ed to use vio­lence to rec­on­cile elec­toral democ­ra­cy with indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism. Today, they are just one part of the crim­i­nal jus­tice” sys­tem which con­tin­ues to play the same role. Their basic job is to enforce order among those with the most rea­son to resent the sys­tem — who in our soci­ety today are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly poor black people.

A demo­c­ra­t­ic police sys­tem is imag­in­able — one in which police are elect­ed by and account­able to the peo­ple they patrol. But that is not what we have. And it’s not what the cur­rent sys­tem of polic­ing was cre­at­ed to be.

If there is one pos­i­tive les­son from the his­to­ry of policing’s ori­gins, it is that when work­ers orga­nized, refused to sub­mit or coop­er­ate and caused prob­lems for the city gov­ern­ments, they could back the police off from the most galling of their activities.

Mur­der­ing indi­vid­ual police offi­cers, as hap­pened in in Chica­go on May 3, 1886 and more recent­ly in New York on Decem­ber 20, 2014, only rein­forced those call­ing for harsh repres­sion — a reac­tion we are begin­ning to see already. But resis­tance on a mass scale could force the police to hes­i­tate. This hap­pened in Chica­go dur­ing the ear­ly 1880s, when the police pulled back from break­ing strikes, hired immi­grant offi­cers, and tried to re-estab­lish some cred­i­bil­i­ty among the work­ing class after their role in bru­tal­ly crush­ing the 1877 upheaval.

The police might be backed off again if the reac­tion against the killings of Eric Gar­ner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and count­less oth­ers con­tin­ues. If they are, it will be a vic­to­ry for those mobi­liz­ing today, and will save lives — though as long as this sys­tem that requires police vio­lence to con­trol a big share of its pop­u­la­tion sur­vives, any change in police pol­i­cy will be aimed at keep­ing the poor in line more effectively.

We shouldn’t expect the police to be some­thing they’re not. We ought to know that ori­gins mat­ter, and the police were cre­at­ed by the rul­ing class to con­trol work­ing class and poor peo­ple, not help them. They’ve con­tin­ued to play that role ever since.

This post first appeared at the Labor and Work­ing Class His­to­ry Asso­ca­tion blog.

Sam Mitrani is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at the Col­lege of DuPage. He holds Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go in 2009 and is the author of The Rise of the Chica­go Police Depart­ment: Class and Con­flict, 1850 – 1894.
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